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Utah gymnastics: After long drought, Utes thirsty for title

Ten championship banners hanging in U.’s practice facility show how dominant program has been, but also that it hasn’t won a national title since 1995.

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"We were in a spot where we had to have three teams ahead of us self-destruct, and we sat there and watched one team after another do that," he said. "I’ve been around enough to see all sides of it."

Many observers say the primary reason national titles are more elusive now is the parity in gymnastics. Even some of the sport’s giants — including UCLA and Georgia — have failed to qualify for nationals as other teams have emerged. The Utes, by contrast, have never missed the event altogether.

At a glance

NCAA Championships

Friday-Sunday, at Duluth, Ga.

(Seeds based on National Qualifying Score, which is the regional qualifying score combined with the regional meet score)

Group 1: 1. Florida 394.77, 4. Alabama 394.27, 5. Georgia 394.095, 8. Arkansas 393.37, 9. Oregon State 393.21, 12. Ohio State 392.47

Group 2: 2. UCLA 394.495, 3. Oklahoma 394.385, 6. Nebraska 393.555, 7. Utah 393.53, 10. Stanford 393.085, 11. LSU 392.645

Note: Top three teams from each session will advance to the Super Six.

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"By no means have they fallen off the map, it’s just hard," said former Utah gymnast Katie Kavisto. "Second place by tenths of a point has happened a fair amount if I’m remembering correctly, and that’s at the top of the top."

In a sense, the Utes have been victims of their own success. When Marsden first got into the sport, few teams had programs, so winning titles was easier. He helped promote and build the sport, and other top programs sprung up in places such as Georgia, Alabama, UCLA and elsewhere. They lured away some of the top talent and won championships of their own.

That the Utes have been able to maintain their level of success is a point of pride, not frustration, said former Ute All-American and Olympian Melissa Marlowe.

"Many schools have a more glamorous draw, like the idea of being in Hollywood, or in the Florida sun," Marlowe said. "The increase in collegiate success has lured some of the most talented private club coaches into the college ranks, increasing the competitiveness 100-fold. In my era, there were maybe five or six coaches in the college ranks who I would have considered amazing."

This year, with Georgia seeded fifth, Florida, UCLA and Oklahoma are the favorites in a field most coaches believe is stronger than ever.

"You can never take qualifying for granted," said Alabama coach Sarah Patterson. "This is the type of championship no one can make a mistake — one through 12 are all strong."

But as much as the coaches love to talk about parity, the fact is that the only four teams that have ever won the national title are Utah, UCLA, Georgia and Alabama.

Georgia, the program located just 50 miles from Duluth, has proven the biggest obstacle for the Utes.

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The Utes finished second to Georgia three years in a row beginning in 2006, part of a 10-year period in which the Gym Dogs won five of their titles.

What allowed Georgia to excel so much at the expense of the Utes?

Former Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan acknowledged the Gym Dogs had not only top talent, but also leadership and a hunger that drove the team.

"We had all the ingredients," she said. "Two of the championships — 2007 and 2008 — we had injuries, and that adversity pushed us to be better."

The Utes acknowledge they haven’t had that kind of chemistry in recent seasons — but believe they have it this year.

"This year we’ve been good about helping each other and supporting each other," McAllister said.

Perhaps that little bit of cohesiveness will help the Utes stick their landings, stick floor passes and ultimately stick it to the competition. And perhaps, they’ll be able to stick another banner in that practice gym on the hill.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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